Homeless DC Families Out in the Not-Quite-Cold-Enough

April 21, 2014

I never thought I’d welcome freezing-cold weather, especially in mid-April. But last week I did because I knew the District would have to shelter homeless families who have no safe place to stay.

I assumed that, as in the past, it would continue to shelter them until they could move into actual housing, with or without its assistance. I’ve learned I was wrong.

Since some time in January, the Department of Human Services has kicked newly-sheltered families back out onto the streets as soon as the forecasted temperature, including wind chill was above 32 degrees.

I wrote some time ago that DHS had reverted to the District’s minimum legal obligation under the Homeless Services Reform Act.

I was wrong about that too because I was referring to its decision to give homeless families access to shelter only in freezing-cold weather, rather than whenever they’d otherwise be at risk of immediate harm.

Now DHS truly has reverted to what the narrowest reading of the law requires — protection from exposure to “severe weather conditions” and, for families, a private room, if an apartment-style unit isn’t available.

The District is now contesting the privacy requirement, claiming that a partly partitioned-off space in a recreation center is a private room. The judge thus far is having none of it. So DHS has been putting newly-homeless families into motel rooms — something the city’s attorneys said it couldn’t possibly do.

But, as I said, they’re sheltered only very temporarily. As soon as the freezing-cold spate is over, they’re out and on their own.

And if hypothermic conditions are forecasted again, they have to return to the Virginia Williams intake center and apply for shelter all over again, as if they were in need for the first time.

They might have another opportunity, as Aaron Wiener at Washington City Paper notes. But pretty soon we won’t have any more freezing-cold nights. The District apparently feels no responsibility for the families then.

What will they do? If they’re lucky, probably double up with one family and then another — or quadruple up for that matter.

If not so lucky, perhaps return to an abuser — a sadly common recourse, we’re told. Or they may spend nights in an emergency room or a bus station, as homeless D.C. families already have.

Or in a laundromat. “You sit in a chair and fake like you are washing clothes,” explained a grandmother who did — and may again if the only alternatives are returning her grandson to his unstable mother or giving him up to the child welfare agency.

An attorney who worked on the HSRA told me that everyone involved assumed that families would have continuous access to shelter, since that was already the operative policy. And it remained so until three years ago.

The DC Council will be considering an amendment to the HSRA that spells out what a private room is — pathetic that such legislation should be needed.

It could use the occasion to also explicitly require year round shelter for homeless families who’ve no other safe place to stay, thus making the law work as intended.

There are actually cost-saving arguments that can be made here, but I’ll refrain because the fundamental issues are human costs.

We need only imagine what it’s like for a parent who’s got to worry about where she and her kids will sleep, how to protect them, what to do with their belongings, what to do now that she’s lost her job because she had to spend so much time dealing with their here-and-there housing, the kids’ school arrangements, etc.

The multifarious damages to children are also easy to imagine — and supported by lots of research.

It tells us, among other things, that the traumas of instability put them at much higher risk of problems in school — something Mayor Gray seeks to compensate for with targeted boosts in public education funding, but not to prevent by minimizing the instability to begin with.

I started the internal rant that’s externalized here the day after the last hypothermia alert was called. It was Emancipation Day in the District.

Now, I like a parade as much as anyone. Balloons and free concerts too. But I couldn’t help thinking about better uses for $350,000 — and about how Mayor Gray covered an extra $116,000 when Councilmember Orange and his fellow organizers ran through their budget.

And I couldn’t help thinking that the Mayor’s proposed $10.8 billion budget apparently consigns homeless families to more of the same.

 

 


Final DC Winter Plan for Homeless Children Passes, With No Shelter Guarantee

November 14, 2013

The District of Columbia’s Interagency Council on Homelessness met yesterday to again consider the part of the 2013-14 Winter Plan that’s supposed to address the shelter and service needs of homeless young adults and minor-age children.

This time, it approved the draft, as-is and with virtually no discussion.

More newsworthy perhaps is that it rejected, almost unanimously, an amendment that would have committed the District to ensuring that “no homeless youth is in danger of hypothermia this winter season,” even if the resources identified in the plan prove insufficient.

Two other parts of the Winter Plan — those that identify shelter capacities for homeless individual men and women — include a similar commitment.

The real sticking point was the basis for the commitment, stated in the sentence that preceded it: “The right to shelter during a hypothermia alert applies to all District residents who cannot access other housing arrangements, including homeless youth.”

Those who’ve been following this issue will recall that the first iteration of the youth-children part said nothing about what the District would do to provide shelter in freezing-cold weather for children under 18 who aren’t with an adult family member.

The ICH approved the Winter Plan, but contingent on a genuine plan for unaccompanied minor-age children. The second iteration didn’t pass either — and as I said at the time, with good reason.

Like the first, it reflected the Department of Human Services’ novel view that the Homeless Services Reform Act, which establishes a legal right to shelter in “severe weather conditions,” doesn’t protect unaccompanied minor-age children, except in the rare cases when they’re legally emancipated.

DHS still takes that view. An open letter to the community issued late last month grudgingly acknowledges that “some advocates believe that the District’s Right to Shelter legislation extends to unaccompanied children who have run away from home for issues other than abuse and neglect.”

Unsaid, but obvious is that DHS believes otherwise. The meeting confirmed that it speaks for the Gray administration. City Administrator Allen Lew, who chairs the ICH, objected to the amendment because it would establish “an unsustainable right to shelter.”

In other words, DHS and the Child and Family Services Administration, which has a lead role in the unaccompanied minor part of the plan, will try to ensure that homeless children are safe, even if it’s not clear they’ve been abused and/or neglected. But if the plan, as written, falls short, well, so be it.

The plan itself reflects the administration’s contorted reading of the law. A child who refuses to return to a “safe available home” with his/her family isn’t homeless, it says.

What staff are supposed to do with children if a preliminary screening indicates they could return is unclear. But the restrictive definition clearly implies that ensuring they have shelter from the elements is, at best, optional.

In other ways, the final draft is far better than its predecessors. But that doesn’t mean it’s as clear and apparently sufficient as the portions of the Winter Plan for homeless men and women who don’t have children with them.

Like the open letter, the draft acknowledges funds in the District’s current budget that will support a new six-bed facility where unaccompanied minor-age children can stay for up to three days without parental or court approval and up to two weeks with approval.

DHS says it expects stays to average a week — and thus to have beds available for 300 more children than the roughly equivalent number that led to high turnaway rates last winter.

The total number of beds should be enough to meet the need, the plan says. What will happen if no bed is available when a homeless child needs one isn’t stated.

And what will happen before the new facility is up and running isn’t either. At this point, a contract to furbish and operate it is still pending. DHS Director David Berns said he thought it would open in January. Agency officials are “talking about interim scenarios.”

But we’ve already had weather cold enough to trigger hypothermia alerts. In fact, one was in effect while the ICH met. Kinda late to be still talking, one might think.

I’m not suggesting the Gray administration will cavalierly let kids freeze to death. But if it were absolutely determined to bring every one of them out of the cold, why does it insist that it has no obligation to do so?

Even if the law were ambiguous — and I don’t think it is — why niggle about it when the moral obligation is crystal clear?

I understand that the drafting committees felt they had to confront complex issues. Children aren’t grownups. We can’t just give them a shelter bed and let them be — or tell them to go on home, regardless of whether they’ll be safe and properly cared for.

But all the Winter Plan is supposed to do — for them, as well as for everyone else in the District — is, as the title page says, “protect the homeless during the winter season” from exposure to the life-threatening risks of freezing-cold temperatures.

If it were enough to trust agencies to muddle through somehow, the law wouldn’t require the District to have one.


DC Department of Human Services Plans to Leave Homeless Children Out in the Cold

October 24, 2013

The District of Columbia’s Interagency Council on Homelessness recently met to discuss, among other things, a revised section of the 2013-14 Winter Plan — specifically, the part that deals with homeless youth and young adults.

Once again, the ICH sent it back to the drawing board. And a good thing too. Because it isn’t merely lacking in specifics, like the family portion I complained about. It’s a tacit denial of a responsibility that everyone, to my knowledge, assumed the District had.

The Department of Human Services now takes the view that the District doesn’t have to provide emergency shelter for homeless children who aren’t with a parent or other caretaker — and that the Winter Plan, therefore, should do nothing to ensure that they have a safe place to stay in freezing-cold weather.

This novel interpretation of the Homeless Services Reform Act is apparently quite new. And it’s not directly stated in the revised section presented to the ICH.

The portion that deals with “unaccompanied minor children” says that the Child and Family Services Administration, i.e., the District’s child welfare agency, will provide 24/7 safety for those it determines were victims of abuse and/or neglect.

Not, I should note, an assurance of immediate shelter or housing.

For children generally, the draft says, “there is not a separate low barrier shelter system in the District” — in other words, no network of publicly-funded providers to ensure that they can get shelter with meeting requirements that might exclude some of them, e.g., showing an ID.

This is a mere statement of fact, not a reason for a “plan” that’s no plan at all.

As the draft indicates, there are two local nonprofits that provide emergency shelter for youth — only one of them for the very young. But, as the prior draft said, “capacity in these programs is limited and slots are quickly filled.”

You’d think DHS would have done something about such an obviously urgent problem. The shortage of shelter beds for kids is hardly new.

The DC Alliance of Youth Advocates alluded to it in a report issued nearly two years ago. Last February, the ICH Youth Sub-Committee reported that 80 youth had been turned away from emergency shelters the month before.

Preliminary data cited by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless indicate that at least 150 minor-age children were turned away during a three-month period, including two months of last year’s official winter season.

DHS could have sounded alarm bells. It’s hard to believe that it wouldn’t have gotten the funds to significantly expand emergency shelter capacity for children who’ve been thrown out of their homes or fled.

Instead, the agency secured a legal analysis to justify the “proposed framework for serving unaccompanied minor children” that’s reflected in the Winter Plan.

Which prompted the Legal Clinic’s own legal analysis.

As it says, the framework asserts that DHS has no legal authority to shelter homeless unaccompanied minors who would otherwise be exposed to dangerously-cold temperatures. Nor, “by extension,” do the providers it contracts with.

This is merely an administrative issue — a way of shucking off responsibility to other agencies, most of which serve on the ICH and, therefore, have responsibilities for a Winter Plan that purports “to protect the lives of those who are homeless.”

The more important claim is that the HSRA doesn’t require the District to shelter unaccompanied minors — except in cases where they’re legally emancipated, i.e., have a court order granting them freedom from parental control (and parents freedom from responsibilities for their care).

The reasoning here is pretty contorted. I’ll leave it to the Legal Clinic to explain the details.

For our purposes, it’s sufficient to say that the legal opinion the framework cites relies on the fact that the HSRA doesn’t specifically say that unaccompanied minor children have a right to shelter — or define the term “individual.”

It does, however, clearly say that the District must provide “appropriate space … for any person in the District who is homeless and cannot access other shelter” whenever “the actual or forecasted temperature, including wind chill factor falls below 32 degrees.”

And there is nothing in the law to justify some of the exclusions the DHS framework establishes for any homeless services to minor-age children. For example, the proposition that they’re not homeless if they “have a house to return to but … no place to stay for the night.”

Say, for the sake of argument, that the law were sufficiently ambiguous raise doubts about the District’s legal obligation to provide children with a safe place to stay when they’d otherwise be on the streets in freezing-cold weather — and highly vulnerable to predators who offer to take them in.

Wouldn’t we still want some of our taxpayer dollars going to remedy a long-standing weakness in the District’s publicly-funded network of shelters, housing and other services for homeless people?

But I’m persuaded that the law isn’t ambiguous on the fundamental issue here. So the real alternative is having our taxpayer dollars wasted in defending the District in a lawsuit for violation of a basic right established in the HSRA — a likely possibility, the Legal Clinic’s brief implies.

But, in the meantime, there will be a lot of young people at unnecessary risk of harm.

The DC Council’s Human Services Committee will hold a hearing on the Winter Plan next Tuesday morning. One can only help that it will firmly reject the pseudo-legalistic evasions and tell the Gray administration to do what it should have done some time ago.

And do it PDQ because, as you may have noticed, it’s getting cold outside.

NOTE: The Legal Clinic tells me that the timeframe for the turn-away estimate is five months, not three, as the source I link to indicates.


Battle Reopens Over Definition of Homelessness

April 2, 2012

It’s sad when nonprofits that advocate for the same cause openly fight with one another.

That’s what we’re seeing now as organizations dedicated to improving services for homeless people take opposite sides on a bill pending in the House of Representatives.

The bill at issue — the Homeless Children and Youth Act (H.R. 32) — would expand the definition of “homeless” in the HEARTH Act, i.e., the latest version of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

Why Worry About a Word?

The HEARTH Act definition of “homeless” sets the parameters for local programs supported by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s homeless assistance grants.

It determines both the populations the grant funds may serve and those that get counted and reported to HUD. The figures reported to HUD are reported to Congress — and ultimately to us, through press reports, blog posts and the like.

The definition thus not only reflects, but helps shape public policy.

First Round of the Definition Debate

H.R. 32 reopens an issue that split organizations at the time Congressional committees were developing the HEARTH Act.

The McKinney Vento Act defined homeless people as those who are in shelters, transitional housing or “places not meant for human habitation.”

People living in cheap motels or some friend’s spare bedroom weren’t officially homeless — and thus not eligible for HUD-funded services.

Their children, however, were officially homeless under Title VII of the McKinney-Vento Act — the part that covers requirements and funding for the education of homeless children and youth.

A number of national organizations urged Congress to broaden the general definition to include families whose children were already homeless under Title VII.

That would have extended eligibility for shelter and more stable housing to families living with friends or relatives or in motels, hotels, trailer parks or camping grounds because they couldn’t afford “alternative adequate accommodations.”

Other organizations, including the National Alliance to End Homelessness, resisted, foreseeing a large expansion in the eligibility pool with no commensurate increases in funding or fundable initiatives.

Congress ultimately tried to split the difference.

HEARTH Act Compromise

As things stand now, the HEARTH Act definition includes individuals and families if they’re about to be evicted and have no immediate prospects for an alternative residence.

Those living doubled up are part of this group, as are those living in motels — but, as with evictions, but only if they’ll have no place to stay in two weeks.

The new definition also recognizes families and unaccompanied youth who are already homeless under other federal laws, but only if they’ve been without permanent housing for a long time, moved frequently and can be expected to remain unstably housed for one or more of specified reasons, e.g., a chronic disability, a history of domestic violence or childhood abuse, “multiple barriers to employment.”

In short, an expansion, but hedged with conditions.

Round Two

No one, I suppose, found the compromise altogether satisfying. Advocates for the Title VII-type definition surely didn’t.

So they found a friendly House member — Congresswoman Judy Biggert (R-IL) — to introduce a bill that would make the HEARTH Act definition the way they always wanted it.

A leading proponent — the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth — says the legislation is urgently needed because “many homeless children and youth are suffering out of public sight.”

We don’t see the hardships they’re enduring because they’re living in motels or doubled up. But they’re actually more in danger of abuse, untreated health problems, hunger and “educational deficits” than those in shelters, NAEHCY says.

HUD’s regulations make it “virtually impossible” for these at-risk children and youth to qualify for the assistance the agency funds. Even those who might meet the HEARTH Act definition could be barred by the formidable documentation and verification requirements.

NAEHCY argues that local service providers are best qualified to know which homeless families and children are most in need of housing and services.

And there’d be no red tape because children and youth already verified as homeless by any one of four federally-funded programs, e.g., a local school district, a Head Start program, would be automatically eligible. Their families as well.

To top it off, the Biggert bill wouldn’t cost anything. That’s again where the conflict lies.

NAEH warns that the expanded definition would divert already inadequate resources from “children who literally have no roof over their heads.”

There’s no indication, it says, that additional funds will be provided to accommodate the increase in the number of families eligible for the assistance HUD funds through its Continuum of Care grants.

I think it’s hard to argue otherwise. If the expanded definition came with a bigger piece of federal budget pie, we wouldn’t have organizations fighting over who should get the crumbs.

Yet, as NAEHCY says, “policy should be based on reality, not fantasy.” Under the current definition, at least 762,000 or so children and youth that most of us would consider homeless aren’t counted as such. Not even an estimate apparently for the number of uncounted homeless families.

Getting a fix on the scope of the problem won’t solve it. But Congress surely won’t act if the numbers it gets minimize the crisis.


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